William Baldwin was 27-years-old when he arrived in Kenya looking for adventure. The University of Colorado-Boulder graduate had no money and his papers weren’t in order. He needed a job. The young American joined the Kenyan police.
The British colony was two years into an uprising by members of the Gĩkũyũ tribe. The authorities called them the Mau Mau and accused the rebels of dragging Kenya back into a violent past. The rebels called themselves the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) and demanded national independence.
The uprising had a taste of inter-tribal civil war: the number of Gĩkũyũ in the Mau Mau was matched by those who remained loyal to the British, fighting against the rebellion. Add the casual racism of white settlers and soldiers determined to hang on to their corner of the empire, and you had a recipe for bloody conflict.
Fire with Fire
Baldwin didn’t care about the complexities of the situation. He saw Mau Mau atrocities up close in the bush – ambush, rape, murder – and agreed with his fellow policemen that it had to be stopped by any means necessary. The American adventurer tortured suspects and summarily executed anyone he thought was a Mau Mau member. Men were shot, necks sliced open.
“The throat opened in a wide red smile,” he said. “Blood shot forth from the scarlet arteries, spraying the executioners in a scarlet mist.”
Atrocities happen in all wars but the Kenyan uprising was especially bloody. At least 50,000 died, the majority killed by the British forces and their Gĩkũyũ auxiliaries. No-one on either side seemed ashamed of what they had done. Baldwin even wrote a book about it.
Words on a Page
Mau Mau Manhunt came out in 1957. Baldwin had no problem describing war crimes. He believed he was justified. Most American reviewers agreed with him. Anyone who didn’t got an angry letter from the writer.
“I slept, ate, and fought beside many fine Kikuyu [Gĩkũyũ] who were trying to protect their homes and families,” he wrote to the Chicago Tribune. “I fully admit my conduct was harsh, but I make no apologies for it. One cannot find helpless infants hacked to pieces and feel much sympathy for the Mau Mau ‘patriots’ who butchered them.”
In the days before Human Rights Acts and courts in the Hague, many ex-soldiers had no problem talking about the dark side of battle. International Brigaders from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s wrote proudly about shooting down surrendering men in memoirs and letters home. Mike Hoare told a tv crew that the mercenary soldiers of 5 Commando did not always take prisoners. These days soldiers keep atrocities to themselves and hope no-one is filming.
In 1967 another book came out called Mau Mau Manhunt. David Drummond was bought up on a Kenyan cattle ranch. He was called up to the Police Reserve in 1952 and used his Swahili and knowledge of bush craft to track down Mau Mau rebels in Happy Valley. He formed a psuedo-gang of turncoats and used it to round up rebel leaders.
Drummond went on to other wars, a plane crash, the George Medal, and being best friends with a cheetah. His memoir of the Kenyan rebellion was published in hardback as Bwana Drum in 1964. When a paperback edition came out three years the publishers stole William Baldwin’s title and slapped on a pulpy cover.
Both books are hard to get hold of, reminders of a day when war memoirs were more realistic or soldiers more brutal, depending on your view.
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